Inquirer & Mirror article

from The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket, Mass., August 7, 1997

Nat Benchley to tackle life of his grandfather, 1920s humorist

By Michael P. Norton
I&M Managing Editor

Nat Benchley has been trying to figure out a way to accurately portray his grandfather on stage for 20 years.

At first, he thought about simply playing Robert Benchley himself, but he found his grandfather’s personality did not lend itself well to that format.

“He was a master of misdirection and not answering questions directly,” said Nat. “I had to put myself on stage because somebody had to comment on Robert, but he wouldn’t do it honestly.”

This weekend, Nat, 50, will unveil “Benchley Despite Himself,” his retrospective on the writings and performances of Robert Benchley, the renowned writer, actor and humorist whose scripts and word plays made him an unwillingly influential person in the early days of television and radio.

“I’ve performed bits and pieces of it in Boston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles but I’ve never done it in front of an audience this big or with this form, with me talking about my life and talking about him and looking for him.,” said Nat Benchley, an Alexandria, Va. resident who summers in Sconset. “I’ve also never done it in front of as many people I know.”

Robert Benchley’s humor differed from the nasty humorists that formed a clique at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s. “He made other people feel good and special, like they were being funny themselves,” said Nat Benchley.

Nat said the contradictions in his grandfather’s personality made him especially interesting. Born in 1889, Robert Benchley grew up in Worcester in a strict Victorian household. He married and had two children, yet spent much of the 1930s and 1940s at Hollywood parties. He always wanted to be a serious writer, yet found his humor overpowering his work. And while he considered himself lazy, Benchley was prolific, according to his grandson.